Thanks to a grant from the Bringing Theory to Practice project, my colleagues and I have been able to study the relationship between civic engagement and “psychosocial well-being” among Tufts students by means of a large, longitudinal survey and some qualitative research. One conceptual framework that informs our research comes from the psychologist Corey Keyes, who has shown that people fall on a continuum from “flourishing” to “languishing” that is quite separate from the continuum that runs from mental illness to its absence. Flourishing has huge mental and physical health benefits–regardless of whether one has a mental illness. People can say they are flourishing if (among other things) “their own daily activities [are] useful to and valued by society” and they have a “sense of belonging to, and comfort and support from, a community.” We propose, in turn, that programs and projects of civic engagement can boost flourishing.
At Tufts, according to a summary by Michelle J. Boyd, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Jonathan Zaff, and me:
Current [civic] engagement … was related to higher flourishing scores (Keyes, 2002). … Students who recently engaged in civic activities, most notably activities perceived to be focused on social change, had significantly better scores on indicators of psychosocial well-being (e.g., connection with others, intrinsic motivation toward learning, strategies for managing stress). Furthermore, students who were engaged only for the first semester did not show a lasting psychosocial benefit, and students who had lower socioeconomic backgrounds were less likely to become highly engaged. Moreover, we found that the students who were civically engaged through courses did not necessarily experience better psychosocial outcomes unless they viewed the activities as aimed at social change.
Sometimes, people ask us whether civic engagement is a solution to specific student pathologies, such as alcohol abuse and depression. I think the evidence for that is much weaker than the evidence for flourishing. At least in our Tufts undergraduate sample, civic engagement is a path to finding meaning, purpose, and satisfaction.